May 14, 2020 - Technology
What Matters 2020

Biden camp's bridges to tech

Illustration of Joe Biden on a pile of cursors.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A loose constellation of tech veterans is lining up to support presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, forming a largely moderate, Beltway-fluent contrast to President Donald Trump's smaller bench of tech loyalists.

The big picture: Biden is drawing support from the technocratic circles that made for an amicable relationship between the Obama White House and Silicon Valley, including some people who once worked for Obama or Biden and now hold powerful positions at major tech firms.

What to watch: Here are some notable tech figures who are serving as Biden bundlers (that is, major fundraisers marshaling large sums of money from other donors):

  • Microsoft president Brad Smith and former president Jon Shirley
  • Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky
  • Facebook board member Jeff Zients (an ex-Obama official who co-hosted a fundraising event last year with other veterans of the administration including Amazon SVP Jay Carney and Lyft policy chief Anthony Foxx) and former board member Erskine Bowles
  • Airbnb director of strategic partnerships Courtney O'Donnell
  • Hyperloop head of government affairs Michelle Kraus
  • Longtime tech investors Doug Hickey and Alan Patricof

Between the lines:

  • Despite Biden kicking off his campaign with an April 2019 fundraiser hosted by Comcast executive David Cohen, there aren't many other telecom veterans among the ranks of his bundlers.
  • The bundlers' names appear on a list the Biden campaign voluntarily disclosed in Dec. 2019.

Biden has also received individual campaign donations from a smattering of tech insiders with past close ties to Biden specifically or the Obama administration more generally, according to Federal Election Commission records. They include:

  • Louisa Terrell, a McKinsey executive and Facebook veteran who served in several capacities in the Obama administration before leading the Biden Foundation from 2017 to 2019;
  • Terrell McSweeny, a Biden staffer in both the Senate and White House who subsequently became a Federal Trade Commissioner before entering private practice in 2018;
  • Scott Blake Harris, general counsel for the Obama Energy Department;
  • Tom Wheeler, FCC chairman under Obama; and
  • Apple executive Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration.

Meanwhile: At least two tech veterans are on record as officially advising the Biden campaign.

  • Cynthia Hogan, a departing top Apple policy executive in Washington, is one of four co-chairs of the selection committee charged with proposing a running mate for Biden. Hogan served as counsel to Biden when he was in the Senate and for both terms of the Obama administration.
  • Larry Strickling is serving as a policy coordinator for the campaign after filling a similar role in the Buttigieg campaign, according to his LinkedIn profile. Strickling headed Obama's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Why it matters: Campaign fundraisers and well-connected donors can play an outsize role in shaping a presidency. Sometimes tapped for policy consultation, they can also bring people into an incoming president's orbit to fill open positions in the administration, or become candidates for those roles themselves.

The catch: It's hard to predict where a Biden administration might land on the largest collision points between tech and Washington — competition and privacy. His tech supporters may have a moderate tint, but the overall Democratic Party has grown more aggressive.

  • “Biden generally moves left or right with the broad strokes of his party,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, which tracks moves between the private sector and executive branch. “The center of the party has been shifting. There are a lot of intra-party battles that have yet to be fought in terms of what a Biden administration is going to mean.”

The other side: Trump's tech support appears thinner.

  • Big Tech has broadly benefited from deregulation and tax cuts under the Trump administration, and they have yet to face any serious damage from either ongoing antitrust investigations or Trump's bluster around claims that tech platforms censor conservatives. Yet the president hasn't won many new fans in Silicon Valley since 2016.
  • FEC records show just a handful of 2020 Trump donors from the ranks of major tech companies. They include Chip Lutton, lead counsel for Google Nest; Frank Brod, Microsoft's chief accounting officer; and Doug Vetter, a vice president at Apple who gave $150,000 to the Trump Victory fundraising committee.

Of note: Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison remains one of Silicon Valley's few big-name Trump supporters, drawing anger from some Oracle employees when he hosted a big-money campaign fundraising event in February.

  • Also: Peter Thiel has said he plans to endorse Trump for reelection, despite not yet giving directly to his campaign or publicly holding any fundraisers for him. The PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member, a vocal Trump supporter in 2016, has had Trump's ear on issues including his harsh criticism of Google for exploring work in China, and a protege of his, Michael Kratsios, is now the U.S. chief technology officer.
  • Apple CEO Tim Cook has cultivated a cozy relationship with the administration and enjoyed tariff exemptions and warm words from Trump as a result. But Cook has remained quiet on the election and could likely live with either outcome in November.
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